Monday, 16 December 2013

The Benefits of Becoming a Cyborg: improving outcomes by keeping us honest

One of the most exciting current developments in mobile health technology is the increasing availability of smartphone-based health monitoring accessories.  Devices currently on the market are mostly focused on cardiovascular monitoring or diabetes testing, but as the space evolves, more diverse technology will become available. 

Why are these tools so valuable?  At a topline level, it’s because they keep us honest.  As market researchers, we’re well aware of common human biases that affect how all of us self-report information to others.  For instance, humans have an inherent bias towards optimism which may cause us to gloss over negative items in our health history, sometimes depending on how they were experienced (see work from Daniel Kahneman, e.g. Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011).  We might forget how many times we’ve felt terrible due to a chronic condition; or, at our annual check-up, we may neglect to mention the few small health quirks that made us think “huh, that seems weird, I should mention that at my checkup…” over the previous year, especially if we ultimately felt ok after they had passed.

Further, the way each patient talks about their disease can be unique.  A worried or scared patient with a newly-developed issue might recall their symptoms as much worse than they were at the time.  Or, a patient who’s hoping to avoid medications might gloss over or downplay the significance of their symptoms.

For doctors and researchers alike, it’s essential for patients’ health information to be as correct, standardized, and reliable as possible.  Wearable health monitors not only ensure that patient data is collected accurately, but they also allow healthcare providers to capture a wide picture of the patient’s health in a variety of settings, granting a more complete picture of health.  For instance, sometimes a patient may come into a doctor’s office with a complaint that can’t be replicated while the patient is there (e.g. heart palpitations or muscle spasms).  More continuous monitoring of the patient’s health can help doctors to gain an accurate understanding of just how frequently and severely these issues are occurring in the patient’s daily life.

Who may want to take advantage of wearable health monitors?

In some cases, patients may feel that their annual readings at a doctors’ office aren’t providing their doctor with a full and accurate picture of health.  For instance, a patient who’s nervous about their blood pressure readings (or even just interacting with a doctor in general) may start to panic right before that test is given, resulting in a reading that’s more extreme than their usual levels and subsequently, a bit of a misdiagnosis.  In a case like this, a portable health monitor worn during the patient’s everyday life could help give a concerned doctor a broader look into the patient’s blood pressure in a variety of settings.

Other types of mobile health tools, such as cardiovascular monitors, can save patients the time, cost, and effort of coming into a healthcare provider’s office just to have a certain test done.  Though current technologies may not be at this level yet, in the future, perhaps patients who require regular monitoring after surgery or a prescription change can electronically submit their test results directly and securely to their physician, helping to reduce costs to the patient and freeing up the healthcare staff to spend more time seeing patients for more substantive visits.

Some devices, like the Scanadu Scout, are designed for a future where we can all monitor all of our vital signs for early warnings of negative events.  In its early stages, such a device might cause a lot of false alarm, as patients may be unable to make reliable, educated judgments from their data.  However, in time, perhaps systems like these can monitor a range of vital signals and health outcomes that are relevant to an individual’s specific risk profile and baseline health (e.g. perhaps a complex disease runs in one’s family, and monitoring for just one vital or another alone wouldn’t catch it effectively). 

At Branding Science, we’re passionate about information and data, and we’re also firm believers that well-organized data tell a story.  The true value of such monitors is in their ability to work in the context of other forms of treatment and help a physician make sense of a patient’s symptoms and future potential for illness.  We look forward to seeing how current and future technologies make sense of large amounts of health data to make a difference in patients’ lives!

Written by Brittani Baxter in our San Francisco Office

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